“It’s sort of a bizarre election because there are no huge names,” said pollster Mark Blankenship, who is working for Republican businessman Bill Maloney. “These are mostly newcomers to the statewide scene.”
For the Democrats, the leading candidate is acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. He’s already in the job, and every poll shows him ahead. He has the support of the state Chamber of Commerce and more than $900,000 dollars in the bank.
Democratic House Speaker Rick Thompson has gotten attention, however, by racking up endorsements from labor unions, including the SEIU, the state AFL-CIO family (which includes the United Mine Workers and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers) and West Virginia Education Association. That gives him built-in get out the vote support. He held a fundraiser last week where he brought in $254,000 — a sign, his campaign says, that even as he gets labor’s backing he also has business community support.
The union advantage is somewhat diluted by the AFL-CIO’s commitment to play nice. "We have made a promise to ourselves that we've got a lot of friends in this election, and we will run a high-road campaign to make sure Rick wins," the state AFL-CIO president has said. Thompson’s ads so far have been positive and personal, focusing on his humble roots and military service. (At the same time, he’s hired consultant Mike Plante, who is known for going negative.)
Tomblin put out an internal poll last week showing himself way ahead with 36 percent, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant with 22 percent, State Treasurer John Perdue at 13 percent and Thompson in fourth with 8 percent. Tennant’s own internal polling shows her much closer, with 27 percent to 31 percent. (There’s been no independent polling in this race, so all of the numbers are coming from campaigns.)
“We feel very good,” said Michael Bocian, who works for Tennant’s polling firm, the well-respected Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. “Everything we’ve seen leads us to believe we’re in a very close race here.” If the race gets negative between the other Democrats, her second-choice standing could be a good thing.
Perdue, whose campaign has complained that all the other polls were done before his “Big John” ad campaign rolled out, just released internal numbers showing him at 18 percent. Among people who’ve seen the ads, Perdue is at 26 percent. “These results show a significant shift in this election,” argues Perdue spokesman George Manahan. Both Perdue and Thompson have tried to make an issue of high utility rates, which reportedly has polled very well.
Tennant has the backing of EMILY’s List, a powerful national group supporting female candidates. Like Tomblin, she has the advantage of holding statewide office. But she hasn’t raised much money. Even though she’s second in most polls, she’s fourth in fundraising. And everyone is still jockeying for second place behind Tomblin, and he hasn’t even started campaigning yet.
On the Republican side, former secretary of state Betty Ireland is the frontrunner. Yet she’s lagging in fundraising behind Maloney, who has also been willing to more cash to his own campaign. The Chamber of Commerce endorsed them both.
Ireland spokeswoman Suzette Raines says her candidate has an advantage — “people already know her, she’s already won a statewide race” — that other candidates will have trouble catching up to no matter how much they can spend in five weeks. “They haven’t released any numbers, but they say internal polling “looks very good.”
It’s true that Ireland is the only candidate to win a statewide race. That campaign was against an 88-year-old incumbent who’d been considerably roughed up in his primary. It was also seven years ago. She’s never had to raise serious money before, and she seems to be having trouble doing it.
The only other candidate who looks competitive is State Sen. Clark Barnes (R) — he hasn’t raised much, but he’s put $100,000 of his own money into the race. He’s gotten some tea party support, mostly by showing up to their events. He also has a base, although he’s joked that he represents "a whole lot more squirrels, deer, and trees than I do people.”
Turnout is expected to be low for this special election in an off-year — probably about 15 percent. A small shift in votes could be enough for an upset. As ads and direct mail start to fly, Ireland and Tomblin’s leads might not be so secure.